Yearning for Learning This Fall? Try a MOOC

It’s the perfect cure for back-to-school nostalgia. No lumpy cafeteria food required.

By Shannon Rupp 24 Aug 2016 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

No matter how long past graduation I get, that first hint of fall always comes with an almost irresistible urge to sign up for classes. In what might be called the triumph of hope over experience, I think: wouldn’t it be fun to do a course on medieval women writers?

Of course, it’s just nostalgia for that idyllic period in the fall semester, somewhere in the first week or two, where everyone seems to be stretched out on a sunny lawn in the academic quad, reading worthy books or having thoughtful conversations. It doesn’t last more than few days before someone demands you do something more than lounge around with your nose in a book like some Evelyn Waugh character.

And I know from sad experience that romancing the past can be a dangerous thing. That longing for sepia-tinted scenes worthy of some British costume drama was once so strong that I ended up in grad school. I’m still not sure how that happened? We were well into marking midterms before the full horror of what I’d done hit me.

Still, as the bookish daughter in the Gilmore Girls duo would say, “I like knowing things.” Which is why I’ve found a happy compromise in becoming a serial MOOCer.

MOOCs, for those of you who missed their hot moment in 2012, are “massive open online courses.” That’s free or freemium courses offered by some of the best academics at the best schools in the world. Years ago, I refreshed some business skills via the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, and ever since I’ve treated my AFN — Acute Fall Nostalgia — by doing a course on something I’ve always meant to learn.

I could get a certificate for doing that MBA-lite at the fraction of the cost of a real degree — about $500. But I’m not in it for the credentials. My motivations are pure: I’m in it for the knowledge. Not to mention the comforting thought that I will never have to do a presentation, write a thesis, or sit an exam. If I get bored and drop a class, there will be no departmental assistant hunting me down, demanding I fill out paperwork.

In many ways, a MOOC is the best of all possible academic worlds. Which is why there were dire warnings a few years ago that the academy was about to have its own Uber moment. Like newspapers, TV, bookstores, music, cabs, travel agents, hotels and a host of industries wringing their hands over what is known as “digital disruption,” post-secondary schools were fretting that MOOCs might very well replace them.

Various Cassandras warned that no one would pay to attend Podunk Community College down the street when they could study with famous professors at ivy-covered schools, for free. And really, why would students willingly get dressed when they could study all day in their pajamas?

Five years later, the fear of academic disruption has all but been forgotten as every September small armies of students pay outrageous tuition fees, often for classes of questionable value. (You know what I’m talking about: the sort of courses that inspire those postmodern phrase generators.)

Naturally, academics themselves have many a theory to explain why Amazon upended the book industry while MOOCs have had little impact on the halls of academe. One suggestion is that while MOOCs lend themselves to first year survey courses in the arts and humanities, they fail to replace lab courses and the more sophisticated upper-level classes in every discipline. Which is true enough. Another theory goes that while MOOCs are fine for people who already have degrees and the learning skills that come-with, they are of limited value for instilling those skills. Probably true, too.

Kevin Carey, author of the 2015 book The End of College, offers a persuasive theory for why MOOCs never replaced bachelor’s degrees: they don’t yet provide the credentials that will help graduates get jobs, which is the reason most people go to school.

But now that some of the MOOC providers are going commercial, which includes developing recognized credentials, he insists the end is nigh.

Credentialling is a big issue in online education. At Mozilla, the people who make the Firefox browser are working on something called “open badges” — a standardized system for recognizing online learning achievements.

And other online education companies, such as Udacity, are charging for “nanodegrees,” often for vocational training.

Meanwhile, Google does something called “microdegrees” to buff up the skills of tech workers.

I wish them all luck. But I doubt they will ever replace a bachelor’s degree because in my experience, online education offers only a sliver of what a good university provides. Education is about more than acquiring jobs skills; it’s about preparing citizens to be citizens. The word democracy is meaningless if the electorate isn’t educated enough to participate.

So the best schools provide an environment that is conducive to learning more than what can be found in the books. It includes a network of classmates whose bright minds challenge you and help you learn, conversations with instructors, and host of random-but-valuable experiences. I can’t imagine learning to fence anywhere but university, and the years I spent swinging a sword turned out to come with all sorts of things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

And then there are the libraries. Research always took longer than it should because I got distracted in the stacks and began reading books that had nothing to do with my classes. Some of that random learning proved to be much more useful than whatever I was writing a paper on.

But where MOOCs do excel is in giving people the taste of a discipline. Have a look at Open Culture’s MOOC buffet; it’s the most enticing course catalogue of four-to-eight week classes you will ever see. A mix of practical learning, academic studies, and things you had no idea you wanted to know until you saw that course title.

Which makes MOOCs the perfect choice for the not-quite-committed student. Those who are either flirting with the idea of going to university or who, like me, want all of the information in a class with none of the deadlines and institutional food.

I generally sign up for a course every fall and work my way through the reading list once the rains set in. Call it the introvert’s answer to a book club.

But mostly, I think MOOCs are the best cure for a bad case of AFN.

Recently I noticed an old friend was in the throes of Acute Fall Nostalgia. First, I caught her reading Middlemarch. Then she mentioned, wistfully, that maybe this is the year she should consider applying for grad school. She had always meant to study art history. Or Italian. Or maybe Edwardian literature. But you know: life.

We were undergrads together and I was bemused by her rosy recollections, which were all focused on those hopeful autumn days. Somehow she had forgotten the horrors of writing Christmas exams with what turned out to be pneumonia. And she had completely blanked out that unfortunate food poisoning incident in the cafeteria.

Still, there’s no arguing with anyone caught in the throes of AFN. So I suggested she get reacquainted with university via a MOOC, and sign up to do the assignments too.

I expect that sometime in mid-October, when that essay is due, she’ll come to her senses.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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